A Sermon for 30 August 2015
Once in the three year cycle of the lectionary, we’re taken into the Song of Solomon. Today happens to be that day. So listen to a reading from Song of Solomon 2:8-17, 8:6-7. Listen for God’s word to us.
“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.” My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.”
And from chapter 8: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
What is your favorite love song? Every generation has them, right? Back in the day was it: “You must remember this: a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply. As time goes by” (As Time Goes By, by Frank Sinatra). And what about: “I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you and I think to myself what a wonderful world” (Wonderful World, by Louis Armstrong). In my generation, lots of us loved that one about star-crossed lovers from two different worlds. Even if they couldn’t be together, she crooned: “And I will always love you!” (I will Always Love You, Whitney Houston). Maybe you have another favorite – one reserved for you and your sweetie– which we’d sure love to hear if you want to hum a few bars of it after the service.
What about love songs for God. Isn’t it one of the reasons so many of us love Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound? It’s a rousing song of our love, our deep appreciation, our absolute devotion to God – the One of grace who doesn’t have to be so dedicated to us, but is. What about What Wondrous Love is This, O my soul, O my soul? The haunting, Lenten tune can strike a chord that resonates all the way to the deepest place in our hearts. More Love to Thee, O Christ is another one and we’re going to sing it at the close of this service. “Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee. This is my earnest plea: more love, O Christ, to Thee. More love to Thee, more love to Thee!” It can’t get any closer to a swooning love song than that. I think it’s safe to say that as long as one shred of love remains in a human heart, we’re going to find a song to sing about it – or if you think you can’t sing, then at least listen to the music and maybe even sway along.
It’s part of the beauty of the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs as the book of the bible often is called. This little eight-chapter book squeezed in between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah gets minimal respect. You may have never before heard a sermon on it. If you weren’t in Comprehensive Bible Study these past two years, then chances are pretty high that most of you haven’t read it for yourself. The Song of Songs has been proclaimed the most secular book of the bible. After all, God is nowhere referenced in it. There’s not even mention of the standard holy-stuff like praying, or fasting, or observing religious celebrations. There’s not one lick of typical God-infused scripture here. Yet it shows up in our cherished, leather-bond, good books nonetheless. Whether we like it or not. Whether we can make much sense of it or not. Right there it is wedged between wisdom and the prophets.
It’s ancient Israel’s kind of love song. Actually, it’s a collection of beautiful love songs – passionate descriptions of love and two lovers’ visions of one another. And it just so happens to be the songs of two whose love was considered unlikely – if not unacceptable in their time. One mate is believed to be Solomon, the great wise king of the Israelites, famed son of King David. Though some scholars believe it’s just attributed to him as a way to make it an acceptable inclusion in Holy Scripture. The other lover seems to be an unexpected choice – which she herself declares in chapter 1:5-6: “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem … do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” She’s not like all the others her beloved could have chosen. She is dark from being forced to do manual labor beneath the hot sun. She’s someone no one would consider fit for a king! The oldest love story out there, right? Whether it’s a class or an ethnicity issue, we can’t be sure. Nor do we know what great wrong caused the anger of her mother’s sons to burn against her – perhaps she was born by one other than their father. Perhaps they caught their sister once before sneaking off. History has not left us the code to unlock the mystery. But we do learn throughout this love song that the two lovers had to fight for their right to love. Because two people from such differing backgrounds being together? Well, it was unheard of! The sneers of Jerusalem’s daughters lurk around every corner. The lovers have to sneak off to the fields in order to be together, hastily seeing one another between this duty and that. Never being able openly to display their love without being despised. Perhaps it all made their love grow even stronger. Maybe their poetry became the place to passionately declare their right to love whomever, no matter what prevailing cultural norms exist. Maybe their writing is their insistence on loving whomever their heart desires.
And it’s pretty steamy! The language is surprisingly sensual – more like one of those Harlequin Romance novels than ancient Holy text. Listen. Here’s how the book begins: “Kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; . . . draw me after you, let us make haste” (1:2-4a). And chapter 4:9-10: “You have ravished my heart, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love . . . how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice.” And then there’s 5:1 and following: “’Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.’” She responds: “I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.” And then, of course, these Songs contain my favorite parts – the lovers’ descriptions of one another. Here’s what Romeo declares to Juliet: “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat . . . your two breasts are like two fawns, your neck is like an ivory tower, your eyes are pools in Heshbon, . . . your nose is like a tower of Lebanon” (7:2-4) WHATEVER??!!! It sounds like he’s calling her some sort of big-nosed, giraffe-necked, pot-bellied freak with dear for a chest! CLEARLY this poetic beauty is lost on our modern imaginations. Regardless, we might be boggled to find such erotic language in the Scriptures. After all, we’re good, God-fearing Presbyterians – Christians like most others who may push the lines a bit but can’t quite tolerate such passion in our Scripture – let alone in our worship!
So what’s the deal? What’s the Song of Solomon doing in Scripture and how in the world did it EVER make it into the lectionary – even if only for one week in the three year cycle? Well, a lot – a lot of good that is. And not just as an allegory of the love between God and the soul or Christ and the Church as some have considered the Song of Solomon over the years. But as a celebration of human love – a helpful corrective for us because think about it: what messages have made their way down through history about passion? It’s something to stay away from, right? Something to be feared! Passion lies in the realm of uncontrollable emotion. Passion can cause us to do crazy things – spontaneous things – out of control actions. . . . I once heard of a rather stoic man who weekly attended worship. It always was the same. He sang a few hymns, tried to stay awake during the pastor’s sermon, and sat through the agonizingly long prayers. Until one Sunday. One Sunday something unexplainable happened. A guest group of teenagers joined them for worship. It was a team of young African-American women who were being trained in their church to dance joyously during the offering while the young men of the church played African drums. When the teens began, the man found himself powerfully moved from the inside out. Something got into him and before he knew it, he too was up dancing among the troop around the communion table. This kind of thing never before had happened in that church or to that man; but that day, something within moved. The next thing everyone knew was that man was like old King David dancing joyously before the Lord. Passion struck. His love for God burst forth in physical form. And he danced! He danced in joy before the LORD! . . . It probably would make most of us a bit squeamish if one of us jumped up during the offertory in a minute. But, who would stop the Spirit of God from moving in us as it will?
Passion. We might think it has no place in proper Christian churches. Then up comes a reading from the sacred writing of Song of Solomon and suddenly all bearings are lost. Long ago some thought the best thing to do was get rid of it. Keep passion safely locked outside the sacred, sanctuary doors. This little book nearly got booted out of the bible in the past. Now it’s there and we simply ignore it. And what a tumble we’ve taken since! Because, as one commentator reminds, “to be in love is to live beyond the boundaries of the self.” Love moves us into the realm where human and divine can merge – where we can get a good education in loving and being loved (Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, Vol. 4; Julia M. O’Brien, p. 5). Indeed it is one of God’s greatest gifts to us – to open ourselves to the mystery of that which moves in us. . . . And if for another human being in this world, then how much more for the Holy One, who has gone to great depths for us? Isn’t it time we fervently sing our love songs to the One who got more than a bit passionate in loving an entire creation? Getting physical, as God took on human flesh to walk among us, fiercely loving – even to the end – for our welfare. . . . Haven’t we definitively been shown in Christ that love indeed is stronger than death? That passion is fiercer than the grave?
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love with the passion of God, the One who passionately loves us every day and at last, beyond the grave.
In the name of that Life-giving Father, that Life-redeeming Son, and that Life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2015 (All rights reserved.)